Monday, July 16, 2012

If you’re Mark Zuckerberg or Dick Costolo or David Karp, what happened to Digg is the kind of thing that messes with your sleep. If one virtual community can go from being worth almost $164 million to getting sold for parts in just a few years, why not another one?

The good news for Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and everyone else is that Digg’s fate was avoidable. The precipitous drop in usage that saw its audience slide from 30 million to 8 million in a little more than a year wasn’t due to fickle consumer tastes, or to competitive pressure from a hotter rival, whatever some might say. It was self-inflicted, the result of discreet and obvious missteps.

To identify where Digg went off the rails, I talked to the folks who knew it most intimately: its power Diggers. People like Andrew “Mr. Babyman” Scorcini and Amy Vernon spent hours on the site in 2007 and 2008, reading and voting on news, interacting with other community members and competing to improve their rankings by getting more stories onto  the front page.

In their view, here are the lessons to draw from Digg’s demise.

You’ve gotta dance with the one that brung you.

A fanatical user base is a mixed blessing. Users who feel responsible for success can be your most fervent champions, but they’re also likely to feel aggrieved when their concerns aren’t prioritized.

Every company that tries to evolve from a niche product with a cultish following to a mass-market offering has to contend with resistance from its core. There’s no way around that except to finesse it. Digg didn’t do that. At times it seemed to be going out of its way to antagonize its superfans as when it got rid of Shouts, which many community members used for talking to each other, in 2009.

“It was the only major social site that had no means of communication on the actual site,” says Vernon. “They just did so many things that showed their complete disregard for the community.”

Lip service doesn’t count. In 2010, when the Digg team was preparing its “Version 4″ makeover, it invited a number of top Diggers to be part of a private beta test. Scorcini and Vernon both participated and gave their feedback. Both hated the changes and said so. “I flatly told them that if they launched this version of Digg, the regular usership would abandon the site,” says Scorcini.

It didn’t matter. Apparently the Diggers were invited to give them a feeling that they were part of the process, but not actually to be part of the process. “There were no changes made from the private alpha to launching V4 publicly,” says Vernon. “They ignored everything we said.”

Scorcini’s prediction proved accurate, of course. Muhammad Saleem says he blames Digg co-founder Kevin Rose “for not listening to his community,” and also blames TechCrunch editor in chief Michael Arrington for “egging him on with moronic bullshit” like this piece urging him to ignore all community feedback and stick to his vision. (Rose didn’t respond to a request for comment.)

User experience has to be paramount. The most reviled aspect of V4 was the way it allowed partner publishers to auto-submit articles to the site via RSS feed. Suddenly, what had been a quirky forum for user-submitted stories was overflowing with generic content no actual human had uploaded.

You would think social companies would have learned a lesson from the demise of MySpace, which drove away its audience with a user experience that felt cluttered, spammy and over-monetized. Some have. When Facebook started worrying that faddish social readers were filling users’ news feeds with articles and videos they weren’t interested in, it slammed on the brakes, even though it meant discomfiting publishers who were counting on the readers as a major new traffic source.